PALERMO TO BRINDISI
We left Cagliari behind and had a comfortable, uneventful ferry journey over to Sicily arriving at dawn to see this impressive city stretched along the coast.
Palermo at dawn
Despite Sicily being a similar size to Sardinia it has five times the population and we had been told that it would feel busier, livelier and more hectic. We embarked however to a city just waking up and all was quiet as we headed to the nearest cafe for breakfast.
We spent a lovely day exploring in the sunshine, visiting street markets and impressive buildings including the cathedral and watching the artists at work on its doorstep.
We headed out along the northern coastline visiting beautiful towns like Cefalu, famous for its twin towered cathedral. It had the typical narrow streets that all led down to a beautiful beach where the waves were crashing against the ramparts.
Our original intention was then to head into the mountains and go through the Nebrodi national park but the clouds descended and the hills looked steep and forbidding so we stuck cowardly to the coast. We had wanted to see mount Etna up close as neither of us has ever seen a live volcanoe but we hoped that we would still get a distant view of her, hopefully not shrouded in mist. We could see out to the Aeolian islands and hoped to see Stromboli, another live volcanoes but she too was hiding behind the mist.
Meanwhile our Italian continued to improve, despite deciding that it is almost a language you can understand without understanding. One day we stopped to ask for water. We had seen the elderly couple outside their house and had spotted a stone sink and tap. Using our abbreviated Italian “acqua per favore”,smiling, waving our drinking bottles and pointing to the tap, they understood completely what we wanted. However a look of anguish came over the old ladies face and one word stood out “sporca”. It seems, if someone doesn’t understand, as I didn’t, you repeat the word again and again, louder each time while looking deep into the person’s eyes awaiting a response. It became obvious that if we had so much as drunk a drop of that water we would have died a slow and lingering death so we shrugged our shoulders, thanked them and made to walk away. Meanwhile Signor had disappeared into the house and emerged with – oh no, bottles of water. How could we then tell them that we were happy to drink tap water which we usually boiled for tea anyway and that we also used the water for washing our hands and washing up? Our Italian wasn’t up to that! They had probably struggled to the shop to buy those bottles and paid for them which we could have done ourselves. Oh dear, but they were very insistent and filled all our bottles to the brims before wishing us a cheery farewell.
The coast road was at times beautiful and at others less so. The roads were often lined with rubbish and the road itself, particularly through the towns was severely potholed. We were adjacent to a large and impressive motorway for much of the route which straddled valleys and tunnelled through mountains but which ironically did not have much traffic on it.
Our road was sometimes deliciously quiet and at others busy with impatient drivers often using mobile phones and texting and even sometimes apparently doing their paperwork. I found the driving impatient and inconsiderate but Pete seemed to get along fine. He is certainly more assertive than me and often uses the phrase “He who hesitates is lost”. I wasn’t however hesitating when a driver cut across my path and I had to brake heavily to avoid hitting him. I didn’t hit him but did lose control of my bike and ended up on the ground with a group of concerned strangers looking down at me. The naughty driver had long gone but we all agreed he was naughty and it was totally his fault. I got up, checked both femurs were intact, told my new friends that I was fine and waited for Pete to come back along the road. As I saw him rushing back, ashen faced, the tears and trembling began and it took me most if the day to get some confidence back.
We passed through a lovely colourful town of Santo Stefano where every other shop sold gorgeous ceramics.
We found a strange monument to a dead poet whose name was never revealed.
Monumento per un poeta morto
We were heading now to Messina where we would have a 20 minute ferry journey across to the toe of Italy. A bridge has been planned for the straits and was to be one of the largest engineering projects in Europe but has been put on hold now for many years due to lack of funding and some opposition. So the boats ply backwards and forwards all day and it cost us just 3 euros for a quick and pleasant journey.
We were now in Calabria and because we had become tired of the busy-ness and rushing traffic on the Sicilian side we headed for the mountains and climbed and climbed for most of that first day. The views were impressive as we looked back over the straits of Messina and at last we saw both Stromboli and Mount Etna puffing out their smoke and looking very volcanic.
The straits of Messina
We spent our first night in Calabria in a lovely B and B and the Signora who welcomed us was excited to show us a balcony from which we could watch the sunset over Mount Etna. That evening we ate the best carbonara we have ever had accompanied by a plate of ham, salami and a deliciously creamy ricotta cheese. Breakfast too produced a feast of home made and locally produced delights. Forgive the list but it is the only way to describe the abundance we were confronted with. We had croissant, a sweet flan with walnuts, ham and slices of cheese, a large plate of scrambled eggs, bread and jam, a large basket of fruit and cappuccino to wash it all down. As we were nursing our distended stomachs, Signora came in with a plate of steaming foccacio, miming us going up the hill on our bicycles and implying that we still needed more calories to be able to do so.
We waddled away from the B and B thinking that we might skip lunch but that wasn’t taking Carlo into account. We met Carlo when he stopped to ask us where we were going, where we had come from and which country we were from. He then invited us to his house for coffee and to meet his wife Katia who is originally from Hungary. They had both spent 5 years working in California so spoke good English and it was really nice for us to be able to have some easy conversation and learn a little of their lives. Coffee turned into lunch and we ate ( list alert) egg plant in Olive oil, olives in Olive oil, bread soaked in Olive oil, pasta and lamb, cheese, salami, pieces of pork, all accompanied by some very nice wine. As you can imagine progress was slow that day.
Pete wondering if he could get into this little car.
We were now heading for the coast and having climbed up to about 1300 metres we had a slow and twisty descent through miles upon miles of busy Olive groves where the harvest was in full swing.
We had arranged our first Italian Warm Showers host and were looking forward to meeting Salvatore and Lisa where we stayed in their lovely home for two nights. The first thing that Salvatore insisted we do was go on a bike ride with the local club which we did and had great fun with a friendly bunch of cyclists who take back roads and cycle along to the accompaniment of loud pop music. We visited a business that produced chutneys and preserves and sampled their wares and had a look around the small factory.
Salvatore then took us on a guided tour of the area which he knows and loves so well. We visited the beautiful town of Tropea which has one of the best beaches in Calabria.
Salvatore and Lisa have a very productive garden and we ate oranges, grapefruit and even kiwi.
Lisa, expert Kiwi grower.
From Salvatore’s place we headed north along some busy roads and decided once more to climb some hills. I think these were the steepest since Corsica and we spent a lot of time pushing. It was, however well worth it as the roads were so quiet, the views astounding and we passed through really picturesque and interesting villages.
We arrived at one village, Martirano, in the late afternoon when everyone seems to gather to chat and stroll around. One man who spoke English asked how we came to be in his village and when we told him we had cycled all the way from England, news spread and as we left we had quite a royal send off!
We saw “memorials” in some of the mountain villages to the emigrants who had left the villages a hundred years ago. This must have been a sad time as young men left their families behind in search of work probably not knowing whether they would ever return. Now we see history repeating itself with many migrants on the streets here, Italy being their first stop in Europe from Africa. They too just want a better life and opportunities and also don’t know whether they will ever return to their families.
We now had to leave the mountains and head back to the coast on our way over to Puglia. On the way we found the best pizza in the world. Straight from the oven, extremely large and very tasty – a hungry cyclists dream.
We thought that our route now over to Taranto looked very straightforward. What could possibly go wrong? Our digital map told us that we would be adjacent to a motorway most of the way and we bowled along with the wind behind us stopping for beachside picnics and generally feeling rather pleased with ourselves. At one point however, we marvelled at how smooth and lovely the road was and how great it was that we had a good wide “shoulder”to cycle on. Life was great , whoopee! It took us a little while to realise that we were actually on the motorway after we saw a sign informing us that we risked a 150 euro fine each for being there. We got off as quickly as possible and that’s when our problems really started.
We couldn’t get over the motorway, we couldn’t get under it and the service road that looked hopeful ended in someone’s garden. The battery on the tablet was running down and it was dusk. Heavy hearts. We cycled inland a little way and were so tired that we just pulled off the road and pitched the tent on a bit of stubby ground feeling certain that no one could object. However, as we were dropping off, headlights hit the tent and there was even a hint of a blue revolving light and then sure enough we heard”Police, Police”. Pete very bravely stuck his head out of the tent while I burrowed deeper into my sleeping bag and then had to suppress nervous, hysterical laughter as he asked the policeman if there was a problem! They asked us how many people there were in the tent and sounded relieved when Pete said “just two”. Then it was ciao ciao and wishing us a good night. All was well.
We woke next morning determined to get out of the situation. We felt a bit like Tom Hanks in the film where he gets stuck in an airport. We set off but an hour later found ourselves back at the campsite having met rivers, railway lines and the monster that was the motorway. I suggested to Pete that we re-pitch the tent and hope that passers by would feed us oranges until we died of old age. Either that or ring the British Embassy and ask to be airlifted out. Pete being rather more level headed suggested a cup of tea while we re-charged the tablet with our little solar panel. By the time the tea was drunk we had a plan that involved a large detour, going inland , up and round ,leaping over rivers, railway lines and motorways as we went. It worked and we had a lovely days cycling along quiet roads through miles upon miles of orange and lemon groves. One farmer called us over, gave us a bag and told us to take as many oranges as we could carry. Another man leapt from his van and piled us up with yet more. Orange heaven.
At the end of this day just as we were looking for a camp spot we came towards our final bridge and our hearts sank as we sensed a problem. The bridge was lit up, we could see people. As we got nearer we could see people around a brazier warming their hands. Was it the police again? Would they at last be demanding that 150 euros? We approached the bridge cautiously wondering whether we would be spending eternity going round in circles eating oranges. It seemed that the people didn’t mind us being there and they welcomed us and told us that they were occupying the bridge and had been there for 108 days. The protest was against the government and its lack of help for the people of the area and the infrastructure which was poorly maintained and underfunded. The road next to the bridge had been washed away 13 years ago and meant a huge detour for people going from village to village. This rang true with us and our experience of the motorway being the only way to travel seemed discriminatory to say the least. We decided in solidarity to spend the night on the bridge and pitched our tent next to the marquee and joined the group around the brazier.
Our final and wonderful treat for us in this part of the world was to stay with Hugo and his dad Peter on their farm in Puglia. Hugo is a Warm Showers host and is going to the U.S. shortly on his own adventure. He met us by the side of the road as we were having our afternoon cup of tea and being a young lad I’m sure his heart must have sunk at seeing us two old wrinklies drinking tea. But we were treated with great warmth and hospitality and were fed beautiful food , shown around the area and Pete was even given the loan if the workshop so was very happy.
Our time in Italy has been amazing. Some ups, some downs but that’s normal and what has shone through most has been the very genuine friendliness of the people here, the wonderful fresh and local food and some great wine.
Tomorrow we head for Greece.